For some time now, I have been the woman I hate. With my baby carrots and my twitching, ravenous expression, I am that most despicable of animals: the dieter. That I sleep with a man whose manna is the Big Bacon Classic at Wendy's has its difficulties. We attempt compromise. I bring my bean curd to Burger King and he, to the wry amusement of the dreadlocked cashiers, brings his McDonald's to juice bars. But sometimes the idea of stabbing at melon chunks in a Taco Bell annoys even me. So I make do with the devil's spawn: the fast-food salad.
Fast-food joints, terrified by angry fat people pursuing legal action, have now become bastions of nutritional advice. The websites no longer offer the avid eater pornographic close-ups of grease-beaded burgers. They are filled, instead, with pictures of lettuce and children on bicycles. It is, you will agree, somewhat distressing to learn "fit facts" from the good people at Taco Bell. More distressing still are their attempts at "lighter fare."
ILLUSTRATION BY MORGAN CHARLES
Despite the fact that their meat comes out of a hose, Taco Bell wants to remind us that "eating sensibly, combined with appropriate exercise, is the best solution for a healthy lifestyle." Their salads are not mere meals. No. No. They are fiestas. My Fiesta Taco Salad came in a deep-fried taco shell that snuggles its heap of shredded iceberg lettuce, sour cream, wilted green onion, cheddar bits, tomato crumbs and hose meat. If you put your ear to this salad, I discovered, you can hear it ooze. You eat it, my lover explained, by breaking off a piece of the shell and scooping it into the primordial swamp. Pure crack. I hated it and myself for loving it.
Fiesta Taco Salad
Calories: 870 Fat: 47 g Carbohydrates: 73 g Protein: 31 g Sodium: 1,780 mg
Veronica's Verdict: Love is blind and deaf and dumb.
At Wendy's, it isn't just a salad you're getting. It's a sensation."When we introduced our Garden Sensations Salads," raves the website, "we definitely raised the bar on salad." Whether or not that was indeed the case, I didn't have the strength for the "new!" Mediterranean Chicken Salad, though it looked the picture of the Riviera with its rings of red onion and its pebbles of feta-like cheese. In the aftermath of my Fiesta, I was now in an eastern, zenlike mood. The Mandarin Chicken Salad it was, not just for its oriental touch, but because "this salad has it all. A fresh mix of cool, crisp salad greens, with tender pieces of chicken breast fillet, plus sweet, succulent mandarin oranges, sliced almonds and crispy rice noodles."
Cubes of chicken-flavoured rubber on sweating lettuce are one thing. Add to this glow-in-the-dark canned mandarin slices and you've got the stuff of post-apocalyptic fiction. In the name of making you the master of your dietary fate, the roasted almonds and "crispy noodles" come on the side in ominous little purple bags. The crispy noodles look like a cross between the fibre twigs in all-natural cereals and the diet food I try, with no success, to feed my cat. The roasted almonds aren't good but they are compulsive. I ate those and drew back in fear from the rest.
Mandarin Chicken Salad
Calories: 610 Fat: 33 g Carbohydrates: 51 g Protein: 31 g Sodium: 1,330 mg
Veronica's Verdict: At least I didn't find a finger.
McDonald's salads are better than they were five years ago, during the brief but celebrated era of the salad shaker. A more traditional approach is now being taken. You get your choice of chicken (Grilled or Crispy) over one of three salads (Bacon Ranch, California Cobb and Caesar), all of which are named for the Newman's Own dressing which accompanies them. Following my failed foray through the Orient, I went west. The Cobb consists of greens, two crumbs of blue cheese, carrot curls, and a few overripe grape tomatoes. Allegedly some hickory smoked bacon lives in the forest, but my hunt through the limp leaves yielded nothing. Hope lived in the chicken: it tasted far less synthetic than Wendy's. I don't mind Paul Newman, but I do despise the man's dressing. It tastes terrible and has a faux gourmet quality to it that reminds me, strangely, of frigid women in sun hats who throw picnics too often.
California Cobb Salad with Grilled Chicken
Calories: 390 Fat: 20 g Carbohydrates: 20 g Protein: 34 g Sodium: 1,500 mg
Veronica's Verdict: Without bacon, hope died fast in the flaccid forest of my heart.
I didn't expect to find much at Burger King. Imagine my surprise when I learned that they offered Fire-Grilled Shrimp (or Chicken) Caesar (or Garden) salads. Feeling like a dive into the deep, I ordered the Fire-Grilled Shrimp. The salad itself was fine. Freshness- and presentation-wise, it was, in fact, the best. Atop the usual jungle of greens were colourful arrangements of baby carrot, grape tomato, red onion, cucumber and pleasingly thick shavings of Parmesan. The fat-free honey-mustard dressing was awful, of course.
But the shrimp. Never, ever, have I felt the fear of God as I did when I beheld that shrimp. It comes in a bag marked "Hot Meat In A Pouch." I opened it to find glistening, pink coils smothered in an obscenely orange sauce. The sauce smelled like rancid Red Lobster and Mrs. Dash. This, I learned from the website, is "fajita flavouring." I threw it away, and ate the salad only. I never said I was brave.
Fire-Grilled Shrimp Garden Salad
Calories: 255 Total Fat: 9.5 g Carbs: 39 Protein: 21 mg Sodium: 890 mg
Veronica's Verdict: The fear of God in a pouch of hot meat.
Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) has eaten, shamelessly or barely at all, in nearly every city in the world. She enjoys rain, hurling things against walls and walks on the beach. She lives beautifully in an undisclosed location at the edge of the known universe. There, she weeps her mascara tears, churns butter in the old style and listens to French accordion music.